“Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song”
Leviticus 19:1-18; Matthew 22:34-46
October 23, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN
Most of those who know me know that tend to be somewhat, okay I am a curmudgeon. I tend to be cranky, short-tempered and a stick-in-the-mud. It’s no accident that one of my favorite Sesame Street characters growing up was Oscar the Grouch. I tend to be a serious guy that doesn’t have time for touchy-feely stuff.
So, it might come as a surprise to you that I love the Carpenters. Yes, curmudgeonly me loves a group that wore its heart on its sleeve. Ever since I was a small child growing up in the early 70s, I loved to hear songs like “Close to You,” which is one of my favorite songs. I also have a place in my heart for the song “Sing” which Karen Carpenter sang on a Sesame Street album.
What I love about the Carpenters is that they wrote songs about being in love and I can understand that. There was something about them that made you feel that they were writing what you were feeling. It didn’t hurt that Karen Carpenter’s alto voice was alluring and made you want to listen.
The Carpenters music is still influential all these years later. In 1994, several alternative groups like Sonic Youth, did a tribute album filled with their interpretations of Carpenter songs.
Of course, this group that brought people so much joy in 70s and onward did not live the most happy life. Richard Carpenter dealt off and on with drug addiction and Karen battled anorexia, which took her life in 1983. It is one of life’s mysteries that this brother and sister duo whose music was played at countless weddings 30 years ago, were not themselves happy.
When we think about love, we tend to think about it in the context of a relationship. We think about the giddy feelings and how we want to be with that person. We want to do nice things for our loved one because...well, we have feelings for them. We send each other flowers and cards to remind each other that we love the other.
It’s interesting because when we see the word love in the Bible, we tend to think it means loving someone in the same way we would love our parents or that special someone.
For instance, look at today’s gospel text. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, the religious leadership of his day, what is considered the greatest commandment. Jesus said you must love God with everything that you have; your mind, your soul, your heart. Then Jesus threw in another commandment: love your neighbor as yourself.
Now, in the English language, when we think of love, we thing of the love between to people, which is all emotion. You like that person. You really like that person. So, we look at this text and think that we must become sentimental in our relationship with God and with others.
But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. You see, in Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, there are three meanings for love. You are already familiar with two of them. The first is eros, where we get the word erotic from. That is love between two people that is usually expressed sexually, of course. The second is called phileo. Part of that word is used in the name of a major American city, Philadelphia, which means, the City of Brotherly Love. This is love could be expressed as love between friends. But Jesus isn’t talking about either of these two. Both express some kind of emotion towards someone. Instead in the Greek, Jesus uses the word agape. This form of love is not as much emotional as it is behavioral. It is the love that God loves us with. It is a love that is demonstrated in action. So when Jesus says we should love God and love others, he is calling us to love God and neighbor by our actions, not our feelings.
Jesus isn’t asking for sentimentality here. Instead he is asking that we love by what we do in our daily lives.
Too often, preachers tend to misinterpret what it means that God is love or to love our neighbors and enemies. We tend to think it means love as in feeling. So we hear sermons about how we should love (feel) people who do horrible crimes. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were many who said we need to love the terrorists meaning we need to have loving feelings toward them and toward those who sent them. However, that is next to impossible. No one can expect someone who has lost a love one to murder or war to have loving feelings towards those who committed the crime. We are human.
However, this doesn’t mean we give into our feelings. What means is that we treat others as we would want to be treated, whether or not they are deserving. What does this mean? The answer lies in our text in Leviticus. Over and over the passage calls for the people of Israel to be holy for God is holy. What the writer is saying is to follow God’s actions. Jesus is saying the same thing. God sent Jesus to bring salvation to the world not because God had sentimental feelings for us, but because God is holy. God was troubled by how humanity had turned away from God and lived lives that only pleased themselves and not others. And yet, God sent Jesus, to bring us freedom from sin.
This is what Jesus means when he calls us to love God and others. If you want to love God, do it by following God’s commands. If you want to love humanity, do it by treating others, both good and bad with respect.
In Leviticus, God is demanding that we be holy people by our actions. This seems like a tall order because you and I know that we will fail. Sometimes we will ignore the person in need. Sometimes we will not love our enemies. We are human and we fail. That is the effect of the law or commandments of God: we fall short. That is why we have grace. God knows we will fall short but loves us anyway. That gives us hope to go and love as God loves knowing that when we fail (and we will) there is still love abound for us. Poet W.H. Auden said it best:
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.
We can only love our neighbors with crooked hearts. That’s all we can do.
It’s interesting that in planning for this sermon, the lectionary skips whole chunks of the Leviticus text which details they way we are to live holy lives. I think it is too easy in our day and age to make Christianity or any faith for that matter, something that is sentimental, that makes no demands on us. For those of us who come from religious backgrounds that were very strict, it seems like a reminder of the bad old days. However, to expect to be a follow of Jesus and expect that there are no expectations is to have a very cheap grace. God demands our whole lives, not just some of it. Yes, there is grace and forgiveness when we fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we do whatever we want. We can choose to ignore God’s demands, but then that makes us an ingrate, taking God’s salvific action in Jesus for granted.
Loving others isn’t easy. It means treating people who in our eyes doesn’t deserve a scintilla of respect. We have to see the bigoted person who hates gay people as a child of God. God may call us to do things we don’t like.
I think an example of what it means to love as God loves was borne out in South Africa in the late 1990s. We all remember the historic 1994 elections which brought a multiracial democracy to this African nation for the first time. The apartheid-era government which treated the majority population like second class citizens was finally over-dead and buried. However, there needed to be an accounting. Many crimes had been committed on both sides during the apartheid era and they needed to be brought into the light so that the nation could move forward. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up that allowed those who committed human right abuses and those who were the victims of those crimes to tell their stories. For the perpetrators, there was a promise that amnesty might be considered. It was chilling to hear how the perpetrators did their works of darkness and sad to hear the victims’ sad stories. There were some relatives of those who had died under the apartheid regime who didn’t think it was right that some people should walk free for their crimes. That is understandable. I would gather that it had to be hard to sit through and hear some of these crimes. But there was a larger reason as to why this was being done. South Africa was basically a new nation after the ‘94 elections, and for this new government to survive, there had to be a dealing with the past and some chance to allow for reconciliation. The commission steered a middle path between those who wanted retribution and those who wanted to forgive and forget. A quote sums up the commission nicely, “it is necessary to both remember and judge and forgive.”
The people behind the Commission were not interested in nice, feelings. How can you ask a mother who lost her son in the middle of the night to have loving feelings for the thugs who tortured him and the killed him? They were interested in a truthful telling, responsibility and finally forgiveness. They treated all with respect, from the victims to the perpetrators. You might disagree, but I think this is what Jesus was talking about in loving our neighbors. It means remembering the victim of a crime and hearing their pain. It means forgiving (not excusing) the perpetrator of his crime. Justice is ultimately about setting things right, not about exacting vengeance.
Love God. Love neighbor. It is not an easy thing God call us to do. But that is what God is calling us to do; not by our feelings, but by our actions. Let us go out and love God as God loves us. Let us go and love our neighbors even the ones who hate us. And let us do through the grace of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.